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The History of Stirlingshire
Chapter XLII – Social Features


"Scotland is drinking itself to death." So we are told from time to time by our neighbours south of the Tweed. And the question naturally comes – How far is the alarming assertion true? We need not, ostrich-like, cover our eyes to avoid the sight of danger. There can be no doubt that matters are bad both in town and country as regards excessive indulgence in stimulants. Unhappily, we live in a land where thirsty men are to be found by the million – human beings overwhelmed by a perpetuity of thirst; and lamentable scenes are the consequence. A score of highly-coloured pictures appeal every day to the heart of the philanthropist. In our police cells, batches of men and women are weekly to be seen prostrate through overdoses of alcohol. On the public streets men reel and tumble, and carry poverty and ill-nature to their wretched homes. No disparaging comparisons; but pride ourselves as we may on our social progress, we have not, after all, got a long way in advance of those days upon which we are so wont to cast a slur. No opportunity is lost of congratulating ourselves on our improvement of behaviour as contrasted with the bacchanalian habits of the last, or penultimate generation. And, unquestionably, gentlemen, do not get drunk now-a-days in the gross fashion that was common even amongst our grandfathers. At least they do not drink, as a rule, so as to lose their heads or legs. Not so long ago, three bottlemen were common in society; but such human casks have gone the way of the dodo and pterodactyl. Even the formality of taking wine with each other at table, especially the practice of drinking healths, is fast becoming obsolete. Still, while admitting that the scandal of open drunkenness has gone from the upper and middle classes, it must not be forgot that a man may be intoxicated without being helplessly drunk. Inebriation means slow poisoning, and the amount of this suicidal conduct which is constantly going on is terrible to think of. Nothing can be more hurtful to both body and mind than the general habit during the day of "nipping" – the most mischievous phenomena of our social life – whether the liquor taken be bar sherry, petroleum whisky, or doctored gin. Osiris, the great god of Egypt, was the first distiller of whisky on record; and in the Greek epigram of Julian, we find this so-called "barley-wine described as "falce Bacchus, fierce and hot; child born of Vulcan’s fire, to burn up human brains." But whence all this morbid craving for narcotics? Comes it from the extraordinary facility with which we exhaust life? Is it to keep up the nervous energy required to go through business, with its pressing cares and worrying anxieties, that alcohol is resorted to? Excess of activity is generally followed by a state of depression in which the subject of it looks at everything past and present in a gloomy light, and which produces in some systems a desire for liquor as a Lethe of the soul. But it is evident, for one thing, that we are deficient in the knowledge of physical laws, and the means of preserving health. If we push brain activity to an extreme, we enfeeble our body; and if we push bodily activity to an extreme, we make our brains inert. And it is this antagonism between body and brain that not unfrequently creates the craving for alcoholic drinks.

Stirlingshire, however, is by no means as black as it has been painted in the sweeping assertion from the south. Statistics could be given from the rolls of co-operative building societies, and savings banks to prove the fact. Indeed, the great bulk of the population bear the highest respectability of character; and many, in the larger industrial districts, sit as landlords under their ‘own vine and fig-tree." In Falkirk, too, the earliest of the temperance societies was formed – a movement that has done good work, from its institution till now, in checking the havoc which strong drink has made, and is making, with the manhood, independence, and vigour of the people.

Nor has Falkirk ever been wanting in "wags" and "wits." We have heard various jests emanate from the punning brotherhood. Here is one: - Mr. H., "Very cauld the nicht, Mr. G." Mr. G., "Many are called, but few are chosen." Mr. H., "If they are not chosen they wont be lang cauld." On another occasion, Mr. H., having lent a professor of the terpsichorean art about 20 pounds, was rebuked by his own brother, who had casually seen the I O U, for his too ready and liberal spirit in thus accommodating all and sundry in his circle of friends. "How can you ever expect, Sandy," said John, "to see such a sum in your hands again from an itinerant dancing-master?" "Leave that to me," was the reply; "if necessary, I can take steps to recover it." One morning Mr. H. observed a professional brother, who was one of Pharoah’s lean kine, pushing along the High Street eating a spelding. The salutation was – "Good morning, Mr. A.; glad to see you; never saw you look so like your meat."

In the spring of the present year the homes of many of the moulding class were temporarily darkened by a series of strikes. Prices of goods had fallen, and the masters, to make both ends meet, notified a reduction in the rate of wages. This the men objected to, and "struck;" but latterly and wisely gave in, and returned to work at the reduced scale. Pity it is that everywhere we see capital pitted against labour, and labour against capital. The very backbone of the great industrial system would seem to have somehow got out of joint. Let us boast no more for the present of our unrivalled success in the paths of the Baconian philosophy. One of the most unhappy signs of the times is unquestionably the lamentable enmity and discord that has of late years sprung up between the workman and capitalist; and if the general trade and commerce of Britain is not to be utterly paralysed, the more harmonious spirit must be introduced into the intercourse of employers and men. In France, some years ago, 28 miners of Auzin were imprisoned as felons, for simple combination with a view to raise the wages of their class; but in this country strikes are no longer put down by the influence of terror. Here the days of feudal servitude, with their penal code and red-hot brand, have been left behind. British labour is completely free to determine its price; and it is the workman’s bounden duty to sell his vigour of limb or mechanical skill in the best market. But assuredly they are not the pioneers of our industrial progress – sworn enemies, forsooth, to all order and prosperity – who, in the guise of benefactors of the race, strut stumpingly in public, and, with irritating discussions on the subject of wages, stir up strife and widen the breach for peace and goodwill between the employer and the employed.

Fifty years ago, the ignorance of the collier community was notorious. Isolation, together with universal inter-marriages, had no doubt a good deal to do with their intellectual weakness. Several capital stories are told of several of the class. The Rev. Dr. Knox of Larbert, calling upon a family at Kinnaird, asked Dick, the head of the house, by way of pastoral interrogation, "how many persons there were in the Godhead." Dick was puzzled; and so followed the minister’s sharp rebuke. "Noo comes my turn," says the collier, "if ye will aloo me, Doctor, tae pit a bit question tae yersel; How mony links wud ye say were in our pit chain?" Dick’s eyes flashed with delight, for the Doctor was thoroughly outwitted. "I cannot answer that, my good man," replied the pastor; "and, perhaps, nobody but yourself could." "Go, billy!" exclaimed Dick, "every yin, I see, tae their ain trade; you tae yours, Dr. Knox, and me tae mine." On another occasion, the Rev. John Bonar stepped in upon a collier family in the same village, and, amongst other inquiries, asked the mistress whether the gudeman ever took the books? "Books!" what’s that?" said the simple-minded woman. "Well, well!" observed the clergyman, "but you are in a dreadful state of darkness here!" "Ye maunny say that, minister, for it’s no yet a week gane sin oor Tam put in a bonnie bit window there, whaur we had naething but a bole afore." "You misunderstand me altogether, my good woman," observed Mr. Bonar, in explanation; "I mean, does your husband ever engage in family worship, by singing and praying?" "No, no, sir; I’ll tell nae lee. Our Tam’s no singer, but he’s the best whistler in a’ the raw." It is different now, however, with the community of whom we speak. They have always borne the character of a temperate and hard-working class; and, at the present day, are, in point of intelligence, at least equal to any of the ordinary working men. The children, too, have had a great advantage over their parents in regard to education. No pit village has been without its school for many years; and for the support of the teacher the coalmaster reserves a fee of two-pence per week from each man, and that quite irrespective of the number of his family. To make matters still plainer – he who has no progeny to educate, has nevertheless the four-pence a fortnight to pay, towards the salary of the schoolmaster, with his neighbour who may have given a dozen "hostages to fortune." Girls are held somewhat at a discount. When a daughter, for example, comes home to the family, she is practically spoken of as a "hutch of dross;" whereas, when a little stranger appears in the sex of a son, he has the higher valuation of a "hutch of coals."

The feeing-fair, either in Stirling or Falkirk, is the great half-yearly holiday of the farms. Many of both sexes visit the market purposely for an engagement; but the majority, having been previously hired, go merely on pleasure bent. A registry has been frequently spoken of for this class of servants, and such an institution, where something of the character of the applicant could be known, would certainly be more satisfactory for the employer. At present, the farmer, as a rule, engages his ploughman and dairymaid, if they happen to be single, from mere physical appearance and a casual question with reference to their former master. But the feeing-day, as we have said, is devoted chiefly to "daffin." Let us attempt to recall the spirit-stirring spectacle. A merry crowd, indeed! in which there is the very extreme of gaiety and abandon. Everywhere, along the public street, the swarming, streaming mass shout and jostle in riotous merriment. The girls – coarse and coaxing – appear in the strongest colours of gala attire; and, as they seldom get the opportunity of turning out in their best gear, they come to town on a fair-day (to use their own figurative language) "dressed to death." Jolly beyond description are one and all of the jubilant throng. A fiddle, above all things, they cannot stand. Its music takes their heels, just as intoxicants take their heads. But when the weather is wet, the "droukit" and drunken scene is truly pitiful. Then it is that the taverns are also crowded with a roaring rabble; and from out these lower dens the country lads, "fouish and frisky," swagger and reel, ready for any role of rollicking rudeness. "Sandie" could not be a whit more amorous though he were wooing "Nancie" under the milk-white thorn.

"And in a fit of frolic mirth,
He strives to span her waist;
Alas! she is so broad of girth,
She cannot be embraced."

But it must be remembered that manners in the country are different, in degree, from those of the town. Were certain city belles – modest Flora, for example, who puts the legs of her piano into pretty frilled trousers – present to see how their rustic cousins fair at harvest-homes, how their feelings of propriety would be shocked.

And what of the dancing? such an impassioned scene gives the lie to the French impeachment, that we take our amusements dolefully. We have frequently been spectators of the rustic festival; and our country cousins are par excellence the dancers. They are a noisy but joyous race, who seem to feel gladness more than any other class. No doubt their terpsichorean frolic is somewhat vulgar and boisterous. We could scarcely speak of the festal hall – "Rankine’s Folly," or the Corn Exchange – as a temple

"Where love possessed the atmosphere,
And filled the breast with purer breath;"

but even a rude joviality of temper is surely neither sign nor proof of an utter disregard of morality. They are indeed greatly at sea who would have the cheery and happy lot placed on the same platform with the drunken Helots of old, who were a laughing-stock for Spartan boys. Why should the "Haymakers," for example, be to the rustic lads and lasses, on a feeing-day, another "Danse Macabre?" And if there is nothing wrong, but something rather commendable, in a Volunteer or foundry ball, why should our isolated ploughmen and their sweethearts be denied similar festive recreation? Many a time we have seen "the doves censured while the crows were spared."

Recently a Cockney critic gave a clever, but somewhat distorted and exaggerated picture of a Scotch feeing fair. He describes the lads and lasses as dressed out "in their best" – the former with well-groomed heads and brilliant neckties, and the latter with "staring gowns," "flaunting ribbons," and towering chignons of "frizzled wool and horse-hair." He sees, moreover, only the crowds and the dissipation, and discovers in the scene an easy and unerring clue to all the national scandal which figures in the Registrar’s returns. Surely this sweeping conclusion errs in so far as it seems to ascribe too much good behavior to all the rest of the year. The Saturday reviewer takes no account, for example, of the temptations which prevail at other seasons, such as the "coming through the rye," the wooing "when the kye come hame," or the gallant conveys "amang the rigs o’ barley." We may rely upon it that the great majority of the ploughmen and dairymaids who attend the feeing market, and share in its exuberant hilarities over much hearty renewal of acquaintance, know very well how to take care of themselves. Not in vain have these agricultural serving men and maidens attended parish schools and churches, and been present at the "Saturday nights" of venerable and pious cottars. The writer in the Saturday, aiming, not without success, at a highly spiced literary performance, clearly makes too much of it. He has endeavoured to produce, in prose, a kind of companion picture to Burns’s "Holy Fair," and unduly slandering our honest rustic population, has laid on the coarser colours with much too unsparing a brush.

But while we refuse to rank the hind community with the ruffians of the "Inferno," and to regard the hiring-fair ball-rooms as nurseries of lust, let it not be supposed that we are blind to the dissipation, vulgarity, and vice, which are ever conspicuously mixed up with such motley gatherings. These are phases of revelry – common to all promiscuous assemblages of pleasure-seekers, where a certain number invariably hold high carnival with the glass – that we would not for a moment think of extenuating; and it would be well were recreation everywhere made subservient to the higher ends of mental and moral improvement.

British agriculture, ever becoming more and more scientific, will yet have greater need of labourers of skill and intelligence; and there is an important fact that must be forcibly urged upon the ploughman guild. They must be led to understand, that it is by the cultivation of their mind and morals chiefly, by a more general diffusion of brains throughout their ranks, that they can either elevate their character or increase their power.

"They sleep, they eat, they toil: what then?
Why, wake to toil and sleep again."

We frankly grant the peculiar difficulties of such an educational task. It would be no joke, the attempt to keep the hind awake over a book, or an exercise, demanding close mental application. His daily work, stiff and stiffening, has the tendency to make him dull and drowsy at night. Whenever he sits down by the blazing fire, in the winter evenings, sleep potently overcomes him, unless his eyes are kept open by story-telling, or by the singing of his own rude roll of ballads. Yet the effort to instruct the class would not by any means be as futile as the pouring of water into a bottomless bucket. There are many improvable intellects among the fustian-clad lads of our farm-steadings, as there are also not a few of their number sober, industrious, and provident – who nobly rise above the influence of their bothy sphere, and look, with a manly heart, beyond the miserable rewards of their present unenviable servitude.

The general festive seasons, especially with the young, are still Hogmanay, New Year’s Day, and Han’sel Monday. Persons with a thirst for philological secrets will naturally inquire what the first name signifies. Its meaning, however, is very doubtful. Various interpretations of the word, have, from time to time, been suggested; but while some of these are ingenious enough, no doubt, they strike one suspiciously as being forced – clever, but not convincing. "Homme est ne." "The man-child is born;" or, "Au gui menez," "Come to the mistletoe," as the Druids are said to have gone in gay and joyous procession; or "Aux gueux menez," "Come to the beggars," referring to the charity which has ever been a creditable and characteristic feature of the season. Be the ancient reading what it may, children, in the villages at least of the county, enjoy on the occasion a return of "hogmanays;" while parties of boys go about from house to house disguised in old shirts and paper visors. They act a rustic kind of drama, in which the adventures of two rival knights and the feats of a doctor are conspicuous; finishing up by repeating a rhyme, addressed to the "gudewife," for their "hogmanay."

Even in this free country, there is a marvellous clinging to some old customs which have nothing to recommend them but that they are old. First-footing, on New Year’s morning, is still to a certain extent practised and encouraged. With whisky or other drink as a gift, visits are made to friends’ houses at midnight to wish them "a happy new year." Nor have certain of the old superstitions connected with the season yet passed away. The first-foot is a visitor of great consequence. To come empty-handed is tantamount to meaning ill to the family. A person with plain soles is considered not lucky. A hearty merry fellow is deemed the best first-foot. And should anything out of the ordinary course occur throughout the day, it is remembered and regarded as the cause or forewarning of anything extraordinary happening during the year.

With Han’sel Monday, until some twenty years ago, came a week’s holidays for the employes in the principal works, when family visits were made to friends at a distance, and other social pleasures enjoyed. But now the Monday itself is alone observed as a holiday. Cock-fighting at this time was one of the chief amusements of the lower orders – a barbarous pastime which in the present day is rarely heard of, either in the nailmaking or colliery districts. "Raffle-shooting" for buns and other seasonable articles, was another great institution; but it also has become obsolete. All, in fact, that now remains of this once chief holiday in Stirlingshire is the orange exchanges amongst the younger people, similar to their custom at Hogmanay.

Previous to the year 1832 the poor and parochial funds were managed by the kirk-session. The heritors met twice a year with the session to docquet accounts, and to receive their report of the state of the poor; but the whole of the active management devolved upon the session. Nor did they discharge their duties in a perfunctory manner. Besides exercising a minute and daily care over all the paupers on the roll, on the first Monday of every month, they, and the minister, met, when all the poor who could attend were expected to make their appearance, and personally to receive their monthly allowance. Those who could not appear from ill health, were waited upon by some member of the session, and their condition reported. Thus was the case of every individual brought monthly under the view of the whole session. Sometimes there was in consequence an increase, sometimes there was a diminution of their allowance, according to circumstances. The effects of this system of watchfulness was abundantly apparent. None were admitted on the roll who were not proper objects of charity. None were continued upon it who did not require relief. No case was overlooked. The poor were well attended to and contented, and the funds by which they were supported, exclusive of the church collections, amounted to a mere trifle. There was then, and even for some years after, much of the good old feeling among the people, of reluctance to receive parochial aid. It was no uncommon occurrence, a quarter of a century ago, for the parishioners to raise, by subscription, a sum of money in aid of some individual or family, who had been thrown into destitute circumstances by affliction or bereavement, rather than they should be subjected to the humiliation of becoming parish paupers. Here is a case in point. A poor, industrious family, in the parish of Drymen, had their eldest son (a promising young student), brought home to them in fever; - and he died. The father and mother were seized, and the former also died. Means got exhausted, and there were eight young children to provide for. The poor widowed mother, from her sick bed, entreated of the minister who offered her relief, that whatever he bestowed should not be from the parish funds. Such a spirit of honest pride, however, is fast departing, if it is not now all but gone. The reception of parochial relief, judging at least from the numbers of the applicants, appears to be no longer felt a degradation.


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